Have you ever wondered what it's like to serve your colleagues in the hospitality industry? Are they likely to be picky and know-it-all, or would they be more like your average customer? Or would they like a bit of everything?
Leon Sewell seemed a good person to ask. He's chef-manager for contract caterer Everson Hewett, and since April 2001 he and his team of three staff have been feeding the 240 employees at London's fashionable One Aldwych hotel.
"The waiters are the most fussy," says Sewell, cautiously. "Our chef customers just want a quick break, and they tend to be more understanding, but it's the managers who are the most appreciative."
Clearly, Sewell won't dish too much dirt, but he does give away one interesting insight. He reckons that for many of these staff, being catered for is a form of escapism. "They act as if they're in a restaurant," he confides, looking round his cheerful, if compact, catering empire.
For hotels, outsourcing their staff-feeding arrangements is not only a case of increasing staff morale, it also takes the pressure off the kitchen. Large contractors that operate in this fast-growing area include Sodexho, which looks after the staff at London's Dorchester hotel, and Compass, which holds contracts with at least 20 sites through its business-and-industry division, Eurest.
It's a fairly new area, however, and one that Stuart Everson, managing director of Everson Hewett, is busy tapping into. He and his partner, Jon Hewett, have won four hotel contracts since 2001 and they're currently in talks to secure others. "It's a growing industry for us," Everson says, "but it isn't as easy as it sounds."
One problem is the lack of kitchen space. Traditionally, staff feeding in hotels has been done by the in-house team, so the new contractors either have to work in areas refurbished as an afterthought or are squeezed into corners.
One Aldwych has provided a tiny new kitchen, but at Sheraton's Park Lane and Skyline Heathrow hotels, Everson's chefs have had to pile in with the hotel brigade - not an ideal scenario.
"It wouldn't work with some named chefs," Everson admits. "Our chef is not seen as important. There are two very different brigades in one kitchen and the contract catering teams tend to be smaller."
For this reason, he chooses his staff very carefully. One of the benefits of breaking into a new sector is that he can hand-pick his team, unlike in a business-and-industry contract, in which he would inherit staff under TUPE regulations.
"We work with the culture of the [hotel] brigade," Everson says. "It's partly down to choosing the right personalities - it would be chaos if they didn't respect the hierarchy. The in-house chef is 'chef'; our team are guests in someone else's environment. So it's important they don't have big egos."
However, it's not all gloom and doom for the contract catering teams. Everson is quick to point out that the conditions tend to be good. While their colleagues across the stove work split shifts, Everson Hewett's chefs knock off by 8pm after eight-hour stints - except at the Skyline, where some work 12 hours. And most work only from Monday to Friday because relief chefs cover the weekend shifts and vending machines are laid on for staff on the night shift.
Everson Hewett's four contracts, which jointly turn over £1.2m a year, are a mix of cost-plus and fixed-price. Apart from One Aldwych, they have all previously been in-house operations and, as it's a new sector, most are one-year rolling contracts. This gives both sides a chance to review how the arrangement is working.
Some hotels work more closely with Everson Hewett than others. At the Sheraton, for instance, the contractors use the hotel group's suppliers and are, in turn, monitored like a department of the hotel.
All the staff-feeding contracts have one thing in common: the staff don't pay for the food. Live-in staff will get two to three meals a day, whether they are on or off duty, while staff on a 12-hour shift get two meals.
Everson Hewett operations manager Frazer Blackley admits that it's sometimes difficult to monitor the take-up of meals. They can usually identify abusers, he says, but they do have to tread gently.
Blackley reckons the settling-in period is about two or three months. And he says any bad feeling between the contractors and the previous in-house caterers is usually short-lived. That's mainly because the kitchen team soon realise it's in their interests not to have to do the staff catering as well.
Everson chips in: "It allows the hotel chefs to look after their clients and our chefs to look after them."